An Outsider’s View of 21st Century Music from an Outside Country
By Frank J. Oteri
We are now well into the 21st century. Yet it is still probably too soon to make generalizations about the music of this new era that will continue to have historical validity in the decades to come. So isn’t a collection of significant compositions from the 21st century, such as this anthology of Lithuanian music, a bit premature?
But history in Lithuania seems to move at a different pace than it does in the rest of the world. This tiny Baltic country was the final holdout of paganism in Europe (until 1387), which is still a source of national pride. (Fittingly, one of the most significant Lithuanian musical works of the last century was Bronius Kutavičius’s 1978 oratorio Last Pagan Rites.) Despite centuries of foreign invasions, occupations, and territorial realignments, Lithuania has remained a defiantly independent cultural outlier and has retained its own extremely unusual language—one which does not bear a significant relationship to any other European tongue except for that of its Northern neighbor Latvia. Culture has been at the heart of Lithuanian identity throughout its complex history and it’s indicative that one of Lithuania’s cultural heroes, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911), excelled as a composer, painter, and writer and that his idiosyncratic works were way ahead of their time.
In the years since the Second World War, which began with decades of enforced incorporation into the Soviet Union, Lithuanian creators—frequently in exile—have been avant-garde firebrands; among them, Jonas Mekas was one of the pioneers of experimental cinema, and George Maciunas was the founder of the Fluxus art movement. Since becoming the first of the former Soviet republics to declare its independence in 1990, Lithuania has been a hotbed of cutting edge artistic expressions. The area where recent Lithuanian artists have made their most significant achievements seems to be music, but that is the medium I pay the most attention to. In the visual arts, Saulius Vaitiekūnas’s sculptures disorientingly combine natural and industrial elements and Audra Vau’s video work often demonstrates a painterly attention to detail as well as a fondness for stasis. In literature, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė’s multilayered stories blur fiction, memoir, and non-fiction. (I wish someone would publish English translations of the controversial novels of the late Jurga Ivanauskaitė which have been described as audacious and provocative!) It’s actually tempting to argue that the 21st century got an early start in Lithuania and in the other newly independent nations of Eastern Europe that emerged from the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But to keep chronological consistency with the rest of the world we’ll just focus on the unprecedented musical flowering that has taken place there over the course of the past 17 years, a period in which this small, once isolated nation has emerged as a fully engaged partner in the international community, becoming a full member of NATO as well as the European Union (joining both in 2004).
The only Lithuania I ever experienced first-hand was this 21st century Lithuania. In October 2003, I attended the Gaida Festival, one of Europe’s most exciting new music events, which takes place annually in Vilnius. I returned there in August 2005 for the world premiere of my own evening-length performance oratorio MACHUNAS, a work inspired by the life of George Maciunas created in collaboration with Lucio Pozzi, which was presented as part of the Christopher Summer Festival. During both of these trips, I was inspired and energized by the remarkable level of musical composition and performance as well as the overall aesthetic openness of the musical scene. I met with many composers and got to know a great deal of the music that has been created since the dawn of the present millennium. I spent whatever free time I had scouring the record stores. Since then I’ve done my best to keep abreast of Lithuanian musical developments through recordings and occasional live performances. In the last three years, as a result of my involvement with the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which presents an annual World Music Days festival in a different city somewhere in the world, I heard impressive works by Justė Janulytė (2014), Justina Repečkaitė (2015), and Raminta Šerkšnytė (2016). I’ve gotten to know the music of these composers and many others through listening to numerous CD recordings, many of which I came to know about through Linas Paulauskis, the repertoire consultant and archivist for the Music Information Centre Lithuania (MICL), whom I first met because of our mutual involvement in the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC). MICL’s own Zoom In series devoted to new music in Lithuania, of which a total of 11 volumes has been released thus far, has been an excellent way for me to stay in touch with what is happening there musically, as have the jazz, folk, and pop compilations that MICL’s Music Lithuania export initiative has prepared for MIDEM and other significant music industry gatherings around the world I have attended.
As a super fan of these recordings, I was deeply honored when MICL’s Publishing Projects Manager Gailė Griciūtė approached me to curate a new anthology of contemporary Lithuanian music. The Centre issued a call for works for possible inclusion in this anthology and collected hundreds of recordings as well as scores of pieces by 90 different composers ranging from éminence grises to composition students. But curating proved to be a daunting challenge for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the sheer volume of the material. Though I feel relatively knowledgeable about contemporary Lithuanian music, I am still an outsider who has only travelled to the country a couple of times and my exposure to this music has been primarily through recordings. An outsider’s perspective, however, is exactly what MICL wanted since one of the main purposes of this anthology would be to showcase Lithuanian repertoire to outsiders—e.g. international listeners. Nevertheless, even more problematic than feeling a lack of sufficient expertise to tackle this project is my personal aversion to passing judgments on music. I disdain criticism. My relationship to music is first as a composer and then as a voracious listener. I have devoted my life to being an advocate for music and to collect as much of it as possible. As a collector, if asked to make a choice between two things, I usually try to figure out a way to select them both—unless my two options are a “best of” and a “complete works,” in which case I will always choose the latter! Aside from wanting to literally “have it all,” I’m fundamentally suspicious of preferences, whether they’re those of others or even my own. A “best of” approach, which is what has given us such flawed paradigms as “the great man theory” and “the masterpiece syndrome,” limits our experience and, worse than that, deafens us to the staggering variety of extraordinary music all around us from all times and places—particularly the music being created right now. How could I possibly agree to make a compilation that would have to exclude so much more music than it could include?
Therefore I declare a caveat that under no circumstance should this collection be thought of as being “the best Lithuanian music of the 21st century” or even “my favorite Lithuanian music of 21st century.” In fact, there are tons of pieces I treasure that are not featured in this collection for a variety of reasons. Since the Zoom In compilations are available internationally, we decided not to include any works featured on them. That means that gems such as Justė Janulytė’s 2009 Naktų ilgėjimas (Elongation of Nights) for string orchestra, which blew me away in a live performance at the 2014 ISCM World Music Days in Wrocław, Poland, was automatically disqualified since it had been featured on volume 8. The same was true of several other pieces I treasure—Gintaras Sodeika’s Piano Concerto (volume 11), Raminta Šerkšnytė’s 2004 violin concerto Vortex (volume 4), and Bronius Kutavičius’s 2002 Aštuonios Stasio miniatiũros (Stasys’ 8 Miniatures) for piano trio (volume 2). In fact, none of these composers appear in this collection.
Since one of the major purposes for releasing this anthology is to make more international listeners aware of Lithuanian repertoire and, in so doing, hopefully inspire more musicians from around the world to perform it, we also decided to exclude fixed media compositions as well as improvisationally-based or specific group interpretation-based creations. Therefore the resulting collection does not offer listeners a chance to encounter the vital electroacoustic sound worlds of Antanas Kučinskas, Vytautas V. Jurgutis, and Antanas Jasenka, or the genre transgressive audio collages of Linas Rimša, the immersive sonic environments of mmpsuf (Eglė Sirvydytė & Aivaras Ruzgas) or noise guitarist Juozas Milašius, the off-kilter songs of Alina Orlova or bands like Happyendless and Without Letters, the contrapuntally stimulating jazz combos led by multi-instrumentalist Remigijus Rančys or pianist Arūnas Šlaustas or the exciting improvisations of another keyboardist, Dainius Pulauskas, who has even recorded an album of “duets” with field recordings of birdsongs, or the extraordinary postmodern examples of Lithuanian sutartinės—a centuries-old polyphonic vocal tradition that in 2010 UNESCO included among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity—by musical artists as varied as Dominykas Vyšniauskas (son of Baltic free jazz pioneer Petras Vyšniauskas), Veronika Povilionienė (particularly her duos with the elder Vyšniauskas), the folkrock band Atalyja, and the Vilnius Jazz Quartet who have worked with the folk group Sutaras. This difficult decision was not the result of a genre bias toward so-called “contemporary classical” music, rather a concession to practicality. We wanted everything featured in this collection to be reproducable by musicians anywhere in the world who read music; to that end, this collection also included PDF files of the scores for every selected piece of music here.
Despite consisting exclusively of score-based music, this collection offers a staggering array of musical styles which is indicative of 21st century music thus far and Lithuanian music in particular. I wanted this collection to include as many different types of compositions (vocal and choral as well as completely non-vocal pieces for solo, small and large ensembles featuring standard as well as one-of-a-kind combinations) by as many different compositional voices as possible (many of whom work in a variety of musical idioms in addition to their score-based music featured here). So I opted to only include works that were under 15 minutes. This sadly disqualified one of the most mind-blowing pieces I’ve heard in the last five years, Lina Lapelytė’s Have a Good Day!, a 2011 opera for 10 cashiers, supermarket sounds and piano, which dazzled me when I attended its American premiere at the 2014 PROTOTYPE Festival in New York City. To offer even a fragment of an opera on an audio recording without the symbiotic visual theatre attached to it would have done it a disservice anyway. I realize that such a time constraint also leaves out tons of extraordinary work that is exclusively aural as well; there are no symphonies here, which leaves out important 21st century contributions to the genre by Osvaldas Balakauskas and Onutė Narbutaitė, among others. (A similar collection of music composed between 1900 and 1917 would have had to exclude Mahler!) Despite this self-imposed restriction on duration, it actually proved impossible for me to narrow down the staggering variety of options I was given to make everything fit on a single CD. Thankfully, MICL agreed to manufacture a 2-CD set, so I was able to include a total of 18 compositions by 9 men and 9 women born in four different decades. (There’s one piece of music for each year thus far of our new millennium if you start counting it from the year 2000!) This collection can only hope to offer a small window into the incredible range of music now being created in Lithuania, but it is one that I hope will whet listeners’ appetites to discover more on their own.
ASCAP Award-winning composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the Composer Advocate at New Music USA, a national organization devoted to the promulgation of new music from the United States which was formed in 2011 out of the merger of the American Music Center and Meet The Composer. He also serves as the Co-Editor of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox, an online publication he has spearheaded since its inception at the American Music Center in May 1999, and is additionally a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). Oteri’s own musical compositions include: the performance oratorio MACHUNAS, which received its world premiere in Lithuania; the quartertone saxophone quartet Fair and Balanced? which was premiered and recorded by the PRISM Quartet; the sixth-tone rock band piece Imagined Overtures which is the title track of an album by the Los Angeles Electric 8; and many solo vocal and choral works based on the writings of contemporary American poets. To find out more, visit www.fjoteri.com.
Supported by Lithuanian Council for Culture, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania and Association LATGA.
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